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House of Lords

Thursday, 13th November 1997.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Birmingham.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Earl Cadogan--Sat first in Parliament after the death of his father.

Lord Plunket--Took the Oath.

Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty

Lord Renton of Mount Harry asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What action they propose to take to provide secure funding for areas of outstanding natural beauty that are not national parks.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, the Countryside Commission is currently reviewing the funding and management of areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) generally, and the arrangements for the South Downs in particular through two separate consultations. The commission proposes to bring together the results of that work next spring. The report to Ministers will include advice on the funding implications for AONBs and will be considered carefully before decisions are taken.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, and declare an interest as the new chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board. May I remind the Minister---

Noble Lords: Ask!

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, does the Minister know--I assumed that she did--that most of the countryside proposals which we are now studying pre-suppose a large element of central government funding? Will she assure us that at the end of the day some degree of central government funding will be available? Otherwise I fear that we face two years of discussion, inquiry, sound and fury and, in the end, no central government money.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I cannot, as the noble Lord will understand, anticipate the results of the review. Obviously the reviews are looking into the funding issues. Recommendations will be made about them. Those recommendations will have to be considered in the light of general public expenditure plans at the time.

Lord Molloy: My Lords, is my noble friend prepared to consider the views and information--I have valid

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information--of the local authorities involved? They could be of great assistance. Is she prepared to accept that?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am prepared to hear the views of the local authorities involved, both on the general consultation which is already under way, and on the specific consultation about the South Downs AONB, which is to be launched at a conference on 26th November.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, as a system of national parks has never existed in Scotland, and conservation, amenity and recreational opportunities have been provided by other means, and as there has been a lively, continuing debate in Scotland on possible changes--long before a Scottish parliament could get around to considering that--have the Government any proposals on this subject for Scotland?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I defer to the noble Lord and his knowledge of Scottish concerns surrounding AONBs, although I recognise that they are not designated in the same way in Scotland. I hope that he will forgive me if I undertake to write to him on the issue.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, will my noble friend encourage her colleagues in government to promote adequate co-operation between the Countryside Commission and local authorities with a view to protecting areas which are attractive but vulnerable, and which have been imperilled, largely because of the inadequate arrangements for local authority funding which have affected many parts of the country?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, those are the types of concerns that have given rise to the Countryside Commission's investigations, and which will be considered when we have the results of those consultations next spring.

Lord Chorley: My Lords, we welcome the news that the Countryside Commission is looking into this matter, and that a report will be sent to the Minister. Will she tell us when the report will become publicly available so that we can all know what advice has been given? Secondly, will she confirm that while we all recognise the importance of AONBs being funded, there will be no question of attacking the funding of national parks which are already under pressure?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, we will be receiving the advice from the Countryside Commission next spring. Then we can look at how we take forward ministerial decisions on that advice, and what will be the most effective and appropriate solutions, both in terms of designation and ways of future funding.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, does the Minister agree that since those excellent reforms of the Attlee government which introduced AONBs and national parks, pressures on those areas have grown

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immeasurably? There is a real danger now of them deteriorating to a wholly unacceptable extent. Something will need to be done fairly urgently. They need not necessarily be national parks. The Norfolk Broads is an excellent example of a tailor-made authority which solved a real problem.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that a range of solutions might be appropriate in differing areas. One particular solution may not necessarily be appropriate for all the areas that we need to protect and conserve.

Viscount Mersey: My Lords, the Minister referred to the South Downs, not to the Sussex Downs which is at the moment a separately administered area from the Hampshire Downs. Does she anticipate amalgamation of the two bodies?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am sure that that is one of the issues that will be addressed during the consultation, and upon which people on both sides of the question, I know, have strong views.

Baroness Nicol: My Lords, will my noble friend assure the House that the present funding of national parks, which is poor--she may not know, for example, that the Lake District now receives £100,000 less than it did four years ago--will be at least maintained, and, if possible, enhanced?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, as I said earlier, I cannot at the moment give assurances about public expenditure while the comprehensive spending reviews are going on. However, I can give the assurance that the value and importance of those areas of outstanding natural beauty that we need to protect are well understood in the department.

All Work Test

3.10 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have any plans to alter the all work test for incapacity benefit.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, as your Lordships would expect, we are looking at all aspects of provision for sick and disabled people as part of our wider review of social security. Naturally, this also means that we are reviewing the appropriateness of the all work test as we develop our welfare to work programmes.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. While I understand that, like her noble friend, she cannot anticipate the results of a review, is she aware that there is considerable scepticism about the possibility of medical diagnosis by filling in a form? Would she agree that asking people to answer "yes" or

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"no" when they suffer from a fluctuating condition causes considerable problems if the only honest answer is "sometimes"?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, yes, I take on board the point made by the noble Earl. It is one of the reasons for reconsidering the all work test. As part of our welfare to work strategy, we wish to focus on what disabled people have the capacity to do and not on their incapacities. A test which scores for lifting a bag of potatoes or putting a hat on your head is not the best indicator of whether you can work at a word processor. As the noble Earl and I argued when the Bill was going through your Lordships' House, the test defines what people cannot do rather than what they can.

The all work test was reconsidered in the spring in order to take greater account of fluctuating conditions. We need to assess whether it is fully appropriate in the situation described by the noble Earl and we would welcome feedback on its use and appropriateness. Therefore, I am happy to assure the noble Earl that the all work test will be reviewed.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, does my noble friend know of a single disabled person who regards the test as fair, because I do not? However, I do know some decent disabled people who are anxious to work but feel guilty about applying for benefits because of the test. Is she aware that the test may be working well as a cost-cutting exercise at the expense of disabled people, but that it is not working well as a fair and equitable test?

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